Finding the Power of Poetry

It's a lovely spring afternoon, and in New York's oh-so-artsy SoHo district, everyone's making the most of it. The narrow streets are jammed with pedestrians pouring in and out of boutiques and galleries, tracking down the latest in fashion or painting.

But on a quiet second floor, a small group of people seems oblivious to the bustle of Spring Street. They are on a quest of a different nature.

These visitors to Poets House are paging through slim volumes of poetry. They're running their fingers over the books of Seamus Heaney, C.K. Williams, Joseph Brodsky, May Sarton, and Anne Sexton. Or they're scanning notices on the bulletin board asking for a poet to write lyrics for an electro-acoustic music project, or announcing a meeting of a Poetry Therapy Group for Pet Loss and Bereavement.

They're seeking what Robert Pinsky, the current poet laureate of the United States, calls "a powerful and time-tested way of learning and taking comfort": poetry.

For some adults, the subject may evoke slightly uncomfortable memories of eighth-grade English classes filled with talk of meter and verse, metaphor and simile, and a vain search for symbolism.

But for those who've loved it since childhood or discovered it later in life, poetry represents beauty, wisdom, intellectual stimulation, comfort, consolation, ongoing learning - something they can't do without.

It's this second group that Mr. Pinsky hopes to focus on this month as he kicks off what's being called The Favorite Poem Project. It formally began on April 1 - also the first day of National Poetry Month - in New York City's Town Hall theatre where participants like Mike Wallace, Geraldine Ferraro, and Garrison Keillor all read aloud their favorite poems.

But Pinsky is less interested in celebrities than in ordinary Americans. By the time the celebrations ringing in 2000 arrive, he hopes to have recordings of 1,200 Americans reciting their favorite poems - not their own poetry, but poems written by others. So far, the verses picked and the reasons for choosing them seem as varied as the readers themselves, and that's the whole idea (see story below).

"Each poet laureate takes a different direction, but [Pinsky's] really trying to make a connection with the common reader of poetry," says Melissa Hammerle, director of the graduate program in creative writing at New York University. "I've never heard of a project like this before. It sort of wakes people up to the possibility of reading poetry."

Pinsky's project is not intended to focus on academics or on the publishing world, but rather on people who experience poetryas a part of daily existence.

Helen Bryan says she was middle-aged when, in a single moment, poetry found her. She was helping her husband rake and burn autumn leaves in their yard when suddenly she felt the urge to write a poem about the sights, sounds, and smells she was enjoying.

That impulse opened up a new chapter in Mrs. Bryan's life. Now, almost 40 years later, she is retired and poetry is at the center of her existence. She writes regularly, shares her poems with fellow writers, and keeps volumes of poetry constantly by her bedside to read. (Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson are particular favorites). She says what enthralls her about poetry is "the beauty in the limited use of words, the challenge of both the reading and writing of it."

How to get hooked

Don Patterson was only 8 when poetry grabbed him. In Columbus, Ga., where he grew up on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, all schoolchildren were required to learn by heart a poem called "The Song of the Chattahoochee." One day, in the auditorium, the whole school chanted it together, and Mr. Patterson found himself overwhelmed by the power of the recitation. "Once you hear a thing like that, you're hooked for life," he says.

Patterson says poetry has always helped him get through career or family crises. In moments of despair, there's a particular poem he constantly returns to: Steven Vincent Benet's "Ballad of William Sycamore," about a group of people going west in a wagon train. The spirit of that poem, says Patterson, helps him to believe he can persevere.

Patterson also writes poetry and volunteers in schools in Napa, Calif., where he now lives, conducting workshops on poetry for high school students.

The desire to spark love for poetry in others seems to be one of the hallmarks of the true poetry devotee. It certainly distinguishes Luis Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez discovered poetry while serving time in jail, and credits that discovery with turning his life around. Now a published poet and writer living in Chicago, he conducts poetry workshops in prisons and juvenile detention centers.

"I was not good at school, I was not good at grammar," he says. But poetry, "is instinctual. Everyone's got it. It's soul talk."

"We hunger for absolute truth, and poetry is truth," says Andy Carroll who, along with former US poet laureate Joseph Brodsky, is a founder of the American Poetry and Literacy Project. He says he lost his taste for poetry as a child in school when uninspired teaching "pounded it out" of him. But then in graduate school he came to it anew, helped along by the discovery of Marianne Moore's famed verse on "Poetry" which begins, "I, too, dislike it." (I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond/all this fiddle./Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one/discovers in/it after all, a place for the genuine./Hands that can grasp, eyes/that can dilate, hair that can rise/if it must, these things are important ...)

The APLP works to put poetry volumes in hotel rooms, hospital waiting rooms, jury rooms, and prisons. It also prints verse in such unlikely spots as the Yellow Pages. The idea, Mr. Carroll says, is "to surprise people with poetry and remind them how wonderful it is."

Power of the verse

The power of poetry and the ability to enjoy it are pretty much universal, says Mr. Carroll. That's why the APLP is working so hard to sprinkle it throughout daily experience. Carroll loves to tell the story of the woman in rural Georgia who, thanks to the APLP, saw Emily Dickinson's "Hope" in the Yellow Pages, and wrote to Carroll to tell him how it lifted her out of a painful moment. ("Hope" is the thing with feathers -/ That perches in the soul -/ And sings the tune without the words -/ And never stops - at all ...)

For National Poetry Month, Carroll is driving across the US handing out poetry books to as many people as he can. He started in New York City on April 1 and hopes to give away 100,000 books by the time he reaches California at the end of the month. All he wants, he says, is for people to experience that special moment when they encounter a poem: "You read it," says Carroll, "and you think, 'Now, that's exactly right.' "

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